2016-08-19 / Front Page

South Portland passes first look at pesticide ban

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Just as happened two years ago when it adopted a ban on “tar sands” oil, the South Portland City Council was cascaded in a quick round of applause, Monday, Aug. 15, as it adopted the first reading of its newest green policy – a citywide ban on the use of certain pesticide products.

Most of the cheers came from members of grass-roots environmentalist group Protect South Portland, the instigating force behind the tar sands ban, which turned its energies to synthetic pesticides about a year ago.

Since then, the council has worked through five sessions on the topic. Still, praise for its 6-1 vote Monday was not universal. In fact, most of those who got up to speak, including a bevy of landscaping professionals, spoke against the restriction on any pest of weed control, organic of synthetic, deemed to be more than a “minimal risk” to human health by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some of those who spoke suggested the city council has headed down the same path it took on tar sands. Also at Monday’s meeting, the council appropriated more than $600,000 to help cover legal bills in the fight to defend its “Clear Skies Ordinance” in U.S. District Court. When the council first adopted a moratorium on tar sands in December 2013, it did not use that time-out as an opportunity to study all sides of the issue. Instead, having seemingly made up their collective minds, councilors immediately formed a special committee and tasked it with deriving the means to keep tar sands from ever entering South Portland.

On Monday, Jim Cohen, a Portland attorney speaking on behalf of landscaping group Mainers for Greener Community, accused the council of again failing to consult the industry it intends to regulate.

Among the many speakers it has entertained on the topic of pesticides, the council had a year to hear a presentation on a method known as integrated pest management (IPM). Rather than seeking to ban products of a particular type, IPM relies on preventative measures first, including mechanical means such as over-seeding and regular turf aeration. When products are needed, IPM uses a comprehensive decisionmaking process to always use the least-toxic methods first, reserving harsher methods on a case-by-case basis.

“Look at this ordinance. If you can find any of those standards there, then by all means go ahead,” Cohen said.

Portland resident Jesse O’Brien, who works at Down East Turf Farms in Kennebunk, said state law already compels the use of IPM methods on school grounds. The South Portland ordinance would force residents to consult a long list or products both allowed and prohibited.

“What we’re really talking about is a knowledge-based system and we really feel IPM does that better than this ordinance,” he said.

“This ordinance is completely one-sided,” said Tom Estabrook, owner of Estabrook’s Farms and Greenhouses in Yarmouth. “It is completely biased toward organics and it does not allow for the use of synthetics when needed.”

Estabrook also questioned how much the city planned to spend educating residents on how to apply the new ordinance, suggesting as much as $100,000 might be needed.

“I cant even figure out of which of the products I sell are going to be on that (prohibited) list. This will be very hard for homeowners to comprehend,” he said.

“IPM is the right approach for a city looking to protects its residents and their property and one that can be easily understood by all seeking to apply it,” said Cape Elizabeth resident John Hanscombe, speaking for Lucas Tree Experts.

“I truly believe in the three words: integrated pest management. I think that covers all the bases,” agreed David D’Andrea, superintendent of Sable Oaks Golf Club.

“Those of us who are professionals in this business are already not using chemicals if we can help it,” he said.

And, just as the volatile combustion chambers needed to prepare tar sands for shipping, which had once been permitted for use in South Portland by the state, pesticides and herbicides are already regulated by higher authorities, with products on the market deemed safe for residential use, D’Andrea said.

“The label is law,” he said. “If you follow the label, you are following the law.”

But others failed to take comfort in state and federal oversight, including members of the city council.

“Everybody thinks this stuff is safe but the fact is nobody is testing to see if this stuff is in our bodies,” said Portland resident Donna Herczeg. “I don’t want to become that statistic who comes down with some unknown autoimmune disease because my neighbor wanted to have some plant that doesn’t even belong in Maine in the first place,” said Councilor Eben Rose.

Others said its up to the city council to act, even in the absence of definitive proof of harmful side effects, because government was slow to recognize the debilitating effects of products like lead-based paint and DDT on human and animal physiologies.

“If we sit around and wait for the state or the feds to do this, it ain’t gonna happen, ever,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher.

Although the final version of the ordinance approved Monday jettisoned earlier distinctions between organic and synthetic measures in favor of a list of authorized and banned substances, the predominate feeling among supporters seemed to be that even the chemicals used in IPM strategies are unnecessary.

“If you give nature a chance, it will take care of itself,” said Rachel Burger, co-founder and current president of Protect South Portland.

Meanwhile, Councilor Claude Morgan scoffed less at testimony against the ordinance than at the residency of those who spoke out.

“I cannot help but notice how many people from other communities are offended by what we are trying to do here,” he said. “Well, I was elected to look out for the health and welfare of South Portlanders. With all due respect, it is not my objective to look out for the health of businesses in other communities.”

Most on the council, including Beecher, agreed that the ordinance before them was “far from perfect.” However, most said it can be amended over time as lessons are learned during the phased-in approach as it is put into practice.

If adopted as currently written, when the time comes for final passage at the Sept. 7 council meeting, the ban on prohibited pesticides would go into effect on most city-owned land as of May 1, 2017, and then apply to almost all private property on May 1, 2018. Meanwhile, Sable Oaks, as well as the city’s own public golf course, would get a pass until May 1, 2019.

“No draft, indeed no ordinance, is ever perfect,” Morgan said. “But it does get perfected over time. What we are doing is leading in a particular direction and we will be following up on that over the years. Hopefully, people will be enthusiastic about doing this and we won’t need teeth.”

The lone dissenting vote came from Councilor Linda Cohen, who was less concerned that the proposal when too far than that it could not be enforced.

“I don’t want to put something into effect that does not have an enforcement mechanism and lulls people into a false sense of security that they will be safer than they are now,” she said.

In earlier versions of the ordinance, fines for using banned products ranged as high as $1,000.

In place of that, all possible violations would now to be reported to South Portland Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach, who will attempt to gain compliance “though education,” along with retention of records on how each complaint is resolved.

Those records would be published on the city website. However, in a nod to personal privacy, the list of alleged violations and resolution methods will be detailed by property tax map numbers, rather than specific street addresses.

Still, one person, Franklin Terrace resident George Corey, had referred to Rosenbach’s pending database as “the registry of gossip.”

Cohen said while the ordinance does allow waivers to combat things such as carpenter ants, it does not say how often or to what degree any exempted chemical pesticides may be used. This, she said, is likely to confuse matters and cause frustration in a system that relies in large part, as Corey suggested, on neighbors reporting neighbors.

The ordinance exempts a host of products from regulation, including those used in commercial agriculture, pet supplies, household disinfectants, insect repellants, rat control supplies, swimming and pool supplies, and “general use” paints and stains, all “when used in the manner specified by the manufacturer.”

Still, as it stands, the ordinance has been called one of the most progressive and far-reaching pesticide control measures in the nation. Beecher, in particular, predicted other cities and towns across Maine and the nation will soon follow South Portland’s lead.

However, the draft ordinance does not prohibit the sale or possession of pesticides and herbicides that are deemed to be a health hazard.

“If we’re not going to make it illegal to sell pesticides in South Portland, when it comes to the general public, it’s going to be like putting a child in a candy store,” Orchard Street resident Patricia Whyte said. “How is the public going to know what they can buy and what they shouldn’t buy, because the labels are incredibly confusing.”

“South Portland is a very large retail center,” Mayor Tom Blake said, comparing the ordinance to the city’s ban on fireworks, which can still be bought and sold.

The ordinance allows for waivers in the case of a public health emergency, should there be an outbreak in disease traced to things such as mosquitoes, poison ivy or tree-killing insects. However, it now takes the power to grant those waivers from a seven-member pest management advisory committee, and hands it to a two-person subcommittee of that group, to include its chairman and one other member, “at least one of whom must be a Maine Board of Pesticide Control-licensed landscape professional.”

The committee must include a “practicing agronomist,” or, soil specialist, while at least one of the two members who must be licensed by the Maine Board of Pesticide Control must also be accredited by the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

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